CAIRO (AP) — Cairo’s international airport was a scene of chaos and confusion Monday as thousands of foreigners sought to flee the unrest in Egypt and countries around the world scrambled to send in planes to fly their citizens out.
Nerves frayed, shouting matches erupted, and some passengers even had a fistfight as thousands crammed into Cairo airport’s new Terminal 3 seeking a flight home. The airport’s departures board stopped announcing flight times in an attempt to reduce tensions, but the move backfired, fueling anger over canceled or delayed flights.
Making matters worse, check-in counters were poorly staffed because many EgyptAir employees were unable to get to work because of a 3 p.m.-to-8 a.m. curfew and traffic breakdowns across the Egyptian capital.
“It’s an absolute zoo. What a mess,” said Justine Khanzadian, 23, a graduate student from the American University of Cairo who was among those waiting at the airport for hours to leave Egypt. “I decided to leave because of the protests. The government here is just not stable enough to stay.”
A U.S. military plane landed at Larnaca Airport in Cyprus on Monday afternoon ferrying 42 U.S. Embassy officials and their dependents from Egypt. The U.S. Embassy in Nicosia said at least one more plane was expected Monday with about 180 people, most of them U.S. citizens. U.S. officials have said it will take several flights over the coming days to fly out the thousands of Americans who want to leave Egypt.
In Cairo, EgyptAir resumed its flights Monday morning after a roughly 14-hour break because of the curfew and its inability to field enough crew. Over 20 hours, only 26 of about 126 EgyptAir flights operated, airport officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
By midday, an announcement filtered through the crowd instructing groups of Danish, German, Chinese, British and Canadian passengers that their governments had sent planes to evacuate them, prompting a nervous stampede toward the gates.
The officials said many countries were working to evacuate their citizens, with Turkey sending four flights, Israel and Russia sending two planes each, and the Czech Republic one. They said those additional flights had helped ease the airport’s restless crowds, but those gains were short-lived as other foreigners and Egyptians poured in.
In a geopolitical twist of fortune, even Iraq decided it would evacuate its citizens, sending three planes to Egypt to bring home all those who wish to return — for free. Thousands of Iraqis once fled to Egypt to escape the violence in their own country.
Transportation Ministry spokesman Aqeel Hadi Kawthar said two of the flights already had returned to Baghdad, and a third flight was expected in soon. He had no immediate figures on how many Iraqis living in Egypt took up the offer.
Nearly 320 Indian nationals were evacuated Monday from Cairo to Mumbai on board a special Air India flight, and another 275 are expected to reach Mumbai later in the day. An Azerbaijan flight carrying 80 adults, 23 children and the body of an Azeri Embassy accountant killed in the unrest arrived in Baku.
China sent two planes Monday and was sending two more charter flights Tuesday to help pick up an estimated 500 Chinese stranded in Cairo. It issued a warning urging citizens not travel to Egypt, and embassy personnel handed out food and water to Chinese at the airport.
That echoed earlier warnings from Britain, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark and the Czech Republic, which all advised against all nonessential travel to Egypt. Many European tour companies canceled trips to the country until Feb. 23; others left the cancellations open until further notice.
One big question was what to do with the tens of thousands of tourists in other parts of Egypt. Tour operators say they will fly home all their customers this week when their holidays end, or on extra flights, stressing there has not been any unrest in Red Sea resort cities such as Hurghada or Sharm el-Sheik.
Britain’s Foreign Office estimated that about 30,000 U.K. tourists and long-term residents are in Egypt, but said Monday it has no plans to evacuate British citizens. Foreign Secretary William Hague has advised against all but essential travel to Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor and Suez and recommended that people currently in those cities leave on commercial flights when they can.